What Proof Do Officers Need to Get a Search Warrant?
Judges may only issue search warrants if officers submit written probable cause affidavits. Probable cause is a vague standard of proof which basically means “s/he’s probably guilty, but I need to hear both sides of the story to be sure.” That’s a low standard of proof, but officers often take shortcuts and/or heavily cite unreliable information. More on that below.
If a Tampa criminal defense lawyer successfully challenges probable cause, any seized evidence is inadmissible. Indirectly seized evidence (e.g. officers illegally wiretapped a phone and discovered where a body was buried) is inadmissible as well. Therefore, the state’s case usually collapses like a house of cards. Then, instead of going back to square one and starting over, many prosecutors would rather make favorable deals and salvage part of the case.
Police pay lots of money for information related to crimes, and we’re not just talking about CrimeStopper tip lines. For example, between 2019 and 2023, the Minneapolis Police Department paid more than $300,000 to confidential informants.
Possible leniency in another matter motivates other informants. Drug trafficking cases are a good example. If police apprehend a low-level dealer, they often promise to dismiss or reduce the charges if the low-level dealer identifies Mr. Big.
Incidentally, such promises are usually empty promises. Once they refer cases to court prosecutors, police officers lose control over them.
For purposes of this blog, the main point is that most people will say almost anything to get a share of $300,000 or get out of trouble.
So, a judge cannot take an informant’s word at face value, even though the standard of proof is low. Instead, the judge must evaluate the tip’s reliability, based on factors like:
- Source: We discussed this point above. But we didn’t mention anonymous informants. This uncorroborated information is almost worthless, because the tipsters themselves are unwilling to vouch for the information they provide.
- Time: Informant-provided information has a very short shelf life. If officers warrant-shop (take a warrant application to more than one judge to get a signature), a Tampa criminal defense lawyer often uses this weakness to undercut probable cause.
- Specificity: This factor partially relates back to the source. If the tipster includes some inside information, even if it’s not relevant to the warrant, the tipster appears more reliable. Vague tipsters could very well be lucky guessers.
Note that, at this stage, the information must be reliable, not accurate. A broken clock is accurate twice a day, but a broken clock is clearly an unreliable timepiece.
The accuracy standard is much higher at trial. Warrants that barely clear the probable cause hurdle most likely cannot possibly make it over the beyond a reasonable doubt hurdle.
Police Officer Observations
The law is much more generous to police officer observations. Usually, judges allow officers to use their experience to interpret their observations.
Once again, drug cases are a good example. If many people enter and leave a house or apartment without staying too long, the dwelling is probably (probable cause) a drug house. However, there’s no way to be sure unless police officers enter and search the dwelling.
Judges also give defense lawyers considerable latitude when they cross-examine police officers. Pretty much everything is fair game, such as officer bias, the number of pre-approval rejections, and the officer’s search warrant record.
Count on a Diligent Hillsborough County Attorney
A criminal charge is not the same thing as a criminal conviction. For a free consultation with an experienced criminal defense lawyer in Tampa, contact the OA Law Firm. Convenient payment plans are available.